Redefining Back to School

August 21, 2008

Two months ago I submitted my first AAUW blog post about my journey from Campinas, Brazil, where I was working as a high school English teacher, to Washington, D.C., in pursuit of higher education. This Friday I will meet my professors, buy books, and tour the campus (not for the first time) along with other incoming School of Communications graduate students. I know I am not alone; in fact the U.S. Census Bureau projects that 18.4 million students will be enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities this fall. However, there is a sense of unease about returning to school after six years of being in the workforce. Late night pizza binges and house parties don’t have the same appeal they used to.

During my preparation for graduate studies, many friends applauded my choice, saying that school is the place to be in an abysmal economy. I reluctantly nodded my head in agreement while tracking spending on $3 coffees and cursing my $20 weekly Metro costs. I have looked at the statistics, though, and my chances of marketability and earning power increase exponentially with each higher degree.

Colleges and universities have noticed the recent trend of older graduates like myself returning to school and have made an attempt to accommodate nontraditional students such as those with spouses, children, and day jobs by offering evening and weekend as well as online courses. The renewal of the Higher Education Act, which was first put into place in 1965, was approved by Congress just before the August recess this year. This bill — supported by AAUW for its attempts to make higher education more accessible, among other provisions — gives the U.S. Department of Education the right to monitor banks and schools for fair lending policies and makes financial aid information more easily accessible to students.

AAUW does its part to ensure that women have access to higher education by providing fellowships and grants to women pursuing doctoral degrees, women from overseas, and women who are going back to school, like me. Career Development Grants are available to U. S. citizens and permanent residents who have been out of school for at least five years and are now interested in advancing or changing their careers or reentering the workforce. This past year 35 Career Development Grants were awarded. Susan Indest, 2008–09 Career Development grantee, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and started her career as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Orleans. In 1992 Indest began working for the Louisiana Department of Health, a position in which she played a key role in the Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita response and rebuilding efforts. Indest now plans to return to school to become a registered nurse.

As I prepare to head back to the classroom to take up my position on the other side of the teacher’s desk, I have been inspired by fellow and grantee stories like that of Susan Indest. Along the way, each alumna I interviewed offered me pieces of advice that I have been stockpiling to use as survival tools. Their stories have encouraged me to push myself harder and expect more from the back-to-school experience. There are still many amazing AAUW alumnae out there who I hope to continue profiling throughout the semester. I have come to see these women as my “long-distance mentors,” and I can’t imagine starting school without them.

Video: The Non-Traditional Student

By:   |   August 21, 2008


  1. clarkp says:

    Edith, AAUW offers Career Development Grants that support women who hold a bachelor’s degree and who are preparing to advance their careers, change careers, or re-enter the work force. The application deadline for the 2009-2010 academic year has passed, but more information about the grants is available at You should also check with the AAUW branch in your area. They may have information about local scholarship and grant opportunities available to you.

  2. Edith Peters says:

    I was very excited to have come across this website. I am 54 years old and by May I will have completed my Bachelor’s degree in Business Management. Unlike Barbara’s friend finances have been a problem for me. I truly want to continue on and get my Master’s. Does anyone know have any grant programs that will assist me?

  3. Barbara McAlpine says:

    Thanks, Mandy. It was your blog that inspired mine, within minutes of joining AAUW. I commend you for returning to school. It truly is never too late.


  4. tempest says:

    A 50-something friend of mine just began her graduate studies in Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She temporarily put her life in D.C. on hold to move to Boston to attend college full-time. While she is blessed that she did not have children to consider in the process, the decision was no less emotionally and financially difficult and painstaking for her to make. She was not deterred by age or finances in pursuit of her goals. Barbara, both of you are truly inspiring!

  5. Anonymous says:


    Congratulations on your progress toward an M.A. in English. Your story is both inspiring and informative. Thanks for passing along this valuable information that I hope is helpful to women reading this blog. Good luck as you continue with your thesis!


  6. Barbara McAlpine says:

    “Older” women returning to school is a valuable quest, no matter the age. The expense, however, of getting a loan when older, and then facing years of payments, is something to consider at a different level than when younger with more years ahead to earn a higher salary and pay off the loan.

    For many years I wanted to return to the university after having completed only about a year or so at various community colleges and a short stint at the University of Washington. At age 59, I was surfing the web to see what I could learn about grants or scholarships and such when I came across a site that read, in part: “Some state universities offer free tuition for students over the age of 60.”

    I was 59-1/2 when I read this. I logged off and called two California state universities within minutes. The first had a waiting list of students over 60–oh no–the second one–California State University, Los Angeles–said, in effect, come on down.

    I received my B.A. in English in 2006 and am currently nearing the thesis stage of an M.A. in English (Creative Writing). Since 2000, I’ve attended the university for evening courses and worked during the day. Each quarter at school has cost me $3 plus the cost of books and parking. I have attended every quarter since 2000 because of the mental stimulation and new friendships.

    At CSULA, the program is called “Senior Citizen Program.” It is one that many are still unaware of, even professors, I’ve learned. Perhaps the schools are afraid to advertise it, which is a shame. At CSULA, I understand there are about 50 of us, and some, no doubt, are there for the occasional fun course. Others, like me, are working toward either a bachelor’s or a graduate degree and a potential new career. My particular goal is to teach Writing to incoming freshman who have been underprepared in high school for the demands of college-level writing.

    This blog is just to say that there are indeed opportunities out there for older women who don’t want to retire in the traditional sense, and who want to continue their formal education without the expense, and who want to contribute to the society that made it possible. I hope that the prospect of returning to school BECOMES the traditional retirement of choice in the future for the nontraditional student. It’s certainly a win-win situation for more reasons than I can count.

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